Watching Moneyball reminded me of the significant way in which Moneyball theories have made baseball worse for fans. Moneyball emphasizes the importance of drawing walks, waiting for the right pitch to hit, and driving up pitch counts for pitchers. So a measure of a hitter’s success is how much time he spends not hitting — just standing there with the bat on his shoulder. Which is to say, how boring he is. Would you rather watch Dustin Pedroia line a first-pitch single to the outfield or draw a seven-pitch walk? He’s good at both: he ranked sixth in the American League in pitches per plate appearance in 2011; Kevin Youkilis (Moneyball’s “Greek God of Walks”) ranked eighth.
So Moneyball slows the game down. The average Red Sox game takes over three hours to play. When the Red Sox play the Yankees, that goes up to almost three and a half hours. This is just too long. No wonder the game is losing popularity.
Bill James (who was mentioned several times in the movie) had some ideas about how to speed up the game in his clunkily titled The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. I just wanted to mention a few.
He points out that it isn’t just the length of the game that’s at issue. He says:
The problem with long baseball games isn’t the time they take. The problem is that the wasted time inside baseball games dissipates tension, and thus makes the games less interesting, less exciting, and less fun to watch.
Anyway, here are the proposed rule changes that I find interesting:
Limit the number of times a pitcher can throw unsuccessfully to bases to two per inning. The third unsuccessful throw would count as a ball. This would get rid of the endless throws to first base to keep a runner close to the bag and prevent him from stealing. The result would be more steals (which is a good thing) and less wasted time. What’s not to like?
Limit the number of times a team could change pitchers in mid-inning. James suggests once per game, and only after the current pitcher has given up at least one run in the inning. Nothing is more tension-dissipating than having a manager waddle to the mound and bring in a lefty specialist to pitch to David Ortiz, and then waddle back out after Ortiz has batted to bring in a righty to pitch to Youkilis. Do that two or three times in a game, and you’ve added twenty minutes to its length. Ugh. A variant would be to have a rule that a reliever has to face at least two batters (unless he gets the third out in an inning). This might effectively get rid of the lefty specialist, which would also be a good thing.
Don’t call time when the batter gets into the box to hit. That isn’t a rule change, it’s just a policy directive to umpires. Why are batters always granted time when they ask for it? Make ’em hit. Maybe time could be granted once per at bat, since a batter could legitimately get something in his eye or whatnot.
James doesn’t mention this change, and it probably wouldn’t make a lot of difference, but:
A batter will be granted first automatically when the opposing team signals that it wants to intentionally walk him. Why does the pitcher have to deliberately pitch four balls? Theoretically he could screw up and throw a pitch too close to the plate, and the batter could swing at it. But I have never seen that happen. Have you? So why waste everyone’s time?
If the length of Red Sox games could be whittled down to two and a half hours or so, life would be better for everyone.
Of course, James made these recommendations in 2001, and nothing much has happened since then.